At the French Open, Success in New York Is Taking a Toll

Grand Slam tennis does not generally do quick turnarounds.

In a normal year, the shortest time between two major tournaments, the French Open final and the start of Wimbledon’s main draw, is 22 days. That break also does not involve intercontinental travel or a shift from a surface that beats up the legs to one that can produce endless slugfests and get muddy.

Then came 2020. Not a normal year. In March, as the coronavirus pandemic tore through western Europe, organizers of the French Open moved the start of the tournament from late May to late September, with the main draw starting just 14 days after the men’s final of the United States Open.

The effects of that accelerated turnaround became clear just four days into this tournament, perhaps foreshadowing the struggles for players considered serious contenders for deep runs over the next 10 days. On Wednesday, Serena Williams, a U.S. Open semifinalist, dropped out, and Victoria Azarenka, a U.S. Open finalist who won a warm-up tournament in New York, lost in straight sets in the second round at Roland Garros.

That meant all four women who made the semifinals at the U.S. Open will be conspicuously absent for the rest of the French Open. One of them, Naomi Osaka, the U.S. Open champion, never made it to the starting line. She pulled out of the tournament to rehabilitate a strained hamstring. Jennifer Brady, the No. 21 seed, lost in the first round to Clara Tauson a 17-year-old playing in her first Grand Slam singles match.

Williams, who got through her opening-round match Monday with little trouble but spent the last two days hobbling around her hotel, decided even if she had managed another win, the nagging Achilles’ tendon injury that had occurred in New York and did not have time to heal would prevent her from playing deep into the tournament.

“I’m struggling to walk, so that’s kind of a telltale sign that I should try to recover,” she said after defaulting against Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria.

Azarenka refused to blame her loss Wednesday on the turnaround time, but in losing Wednesday, 6-2, 6-2, to Anna Karolina Schmiedlova of Slovakia, a player barely cracking the top 200, Azarenka appeared to hit a wall after tearing through the draw in New York.

On the men’s side, three of the eight quarterfinalists in New York are already gone, most notably Daniil Medvedev of Russia, who made the final four at the U.S. Open but has always struggled at Roland Garros.

Even those who played deep into the U.S. Open and are still in the Roland Garros field know that there will be tough days ahead.

“At one point I’m going to get super tired,” said Dominic Thiem, the U.S. Open champion, who won his second-round match against Jack Sock Wednesday in straight sets. “I guess all the tension and focus on Roland Garros, it’s hiding still, the tiredness and everything. I hope I can push it as far as I can.”

Looming fatigue is rarely top of mind for a high-ranked player during the first week of a Grand Slam. But there is a rhythm to the usual tennis calendar that generally allows players to peak during the biggest tournaments.

The tennis year begins on hardcourts in Australia in January. In late winter and early spring, it swings to California and Florida for two more large hardcourt championships. Then it moves to Europe for the clay court season in April, culminating with the French Open, which finishes in early June. A month of play on grass follows, with Wimbledon, in London, wrapping up by mid-July. Then it’s back to hard courts in the United States for the rest of the summer, which ends with the U.S. Open in New York, and there are tournaments after that in Asia and Europe, many of them indoors, before the season finishes in November.

In other words, plenty of time zone adjustments and opportunities for rest. Not this year. One week, the world’s top players were navigating the hard and fast courts of the U.S. Open. Days later, they were slogging through clay court tournaments in Italy and Germany to tune up for Roland Garros.

“Definitely was a super tough turnaround,” said Taylor Fritz, who lost in the third round at the U.S. Open, and has now won twice in Paris.

In a normal year, Fritz said he trains on clay for three weeks before playing tournaments. This year, adapting became necessary in competition as he lost first-round matches in Rome and Hamburg, Germany. “I’m just now this week finding my game,” he said.

On the flip side, the benefits of losing early in New York or skipping the tournament altogether are also beginning to show.

Rafael Nadal, the 12-time French Open champion, and Simona Halep, a three-time finalist in Paris, passed on the U.S. Open. Both preferred to avoid the hassle of international travel and living abroad in restrictive conditions for a month. They chose extra practice time on clay over two shots to win a Grand Slam tournament this year.

Neither player has dropped a set in the first two rounds. Nadal played a near flawless match Wednesday, overwhelming Mackenzie McDonald of the United States 6-1, 6-0, 6-3. Halep cruised 6-3, 6-4 against her fellow Romanian, Irina-Camelia Begu.

ImageRafael Nadal, one of several players to skip the United States Open, cruised in his first two matches at the French Open.
Credit…Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Novak Djokovic, who was defaulted from his fourth-round match at the U.S. Open, won the Italian Open last week and lost just five games in his first-round match in Paris to Mikael Ymer of Sweden. He will play his second-round match Thursday against Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania.

Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, who lost in the first round of the U.S. Open then made the final in Rome, said the advantages of an early arrival in Europe were obvious, even if that quick exit in New York had been Plan B.

“When you are winning matches, obviously you get tired and it is not easy to go to the next tournaments,” Schwartzman, the No. 12 seed, said Wednesday after dispatching Lorenzo Giustino in straight sets.

Even better for Schwartzman, who has gotten used to playing in the unusually cool, damp weather, which is so different from what the players usually experience in Europe in the spring. The conditions are slowing down the new, heavier ball and keeping it low, suiting his game and allowing him to regain the confidence he had lost in New York.

“When I arrived here and I saw the weather and I saw the new balls,” he said, “I was thinking, OK, I have a good opportunity.”

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